News / Health

Malawi Sex Initiation Puts Girls at Risk for HIV

FILE - A young girl carries her sister through a cornfield in Masongo village outside Lilongwe, Malawi, May 13, 2008.
FILE - A young girl carries her sister through a cornfield in Masongo village outside Lilongwe, Malawi, May 13, 2008.
Lameck Masina

In Malawi, almost a third of new HIV cases occur in women under the age of 30, in part because of traditional coming-of-age ceremonies that introduce young girls to sex, according to AIDS activists.

Malawi’s Demographic and Health Survey shows that 20 percent of young girls in the southern African country become sexually active before age 13. Many of them do so with limited knowledge of safe sex.

People working to combat HIV/AIDS infection blame cultural and traditional practices in which girls are sent to special initiation camps. There, the girls sometimes are encouraged to have sex to transition into adulthood.

The practice is rampant in Malawi’s southern district of Mangochi, said Chief Chowe, a senior traditional leader. He added that it exposes girls to high risk of HIV infection because they’re usually partnered with older men who sleep with several girls in the camp.

The Girls Empowerment Network (GENET), a nonprofit organization in Malawi, works to discourage girls from engaging in sex at a young age. The traditional practice poses a danger of girls becoming addicted to sex, communications adviser Joyce Mkandawire said.

“Once the girls are introduced to the first sexual encounter, they go back and do it on their own because they had done it during the initiation camp,” Mkandawire explained.

Many girls become pregnant and drop out of school, she said.

Chowe and Mkandawire said several interventions are addressing the problems associated with early sex among girls.

Chowe said he has been teaching initiation camp counselors about the dangers of encouraging the girls to have early sexual intercourse. With other district leaders, he has developed by-laws that aim to curb sexual activity among girls.

“As traditional leaders in Mangochi, we have designed by-laws which require all school-going age groups should go to school and if they get pregnant, we have imposed a fine on the culprits,” Chowe said. “A parent is asked to pay a goat if his or her girl child has been impregnated while in school.” 

Mkandawire said her organization is pushing to modify the initiation camps’ syllabus. “Actually we would like to replace initiation ceremonies with summer camps where girls are told to behave like girls and encourage them to stay in school and not introduce them into womanhood,” she said.

The Malawi government’s coordinating arm for HIV activities, the National AIDS Commission, says it supports several initiatives aimed at transforming traditional practices that lead to HIV infection among girls.

“We have educational projects where we work with traditional leaders, social leaders and opinion makers in the community to ensure that harmful cultural practices are no longer practiced,” said Linje Manyozo, a commission specialist in social and behavioral change intervention.

The government is implementing a five-year national HIV/AIDS strategy it launched in 2012.

The strategy calls for teaching girls life skills so they understand their rights and become empowered.

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by: Festus from: Asaba
July 21, 2014 6:34 PM
This shows the level of backwordness of the people in this parth of the world. They need finacial suport to boost their educational sector.

by: Anne Cross from: USA
July 19, 2014 12:39 PM
Can you identify the source of your statement that 20 percent of young girls become sexually active before age 13? The post implies that it is from the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, yet the 2010 survey shows that only 12% of girls aged 15-19 said they had sex before they were 15.

by: Ranger Dan Parsons from: Michigan
July 19, 2014 10:32 AM
Sounds like a made up "Tradition" created to benefit only promiscuous, disease infested, pedophiles. I wonder what lies and fake truths these poor girls are told by these predators to get them to "Comply". There are sleazy pigs that prey on women worldwide.

by: Robert Singleton
July 18, 2014 6:57 PM
Lameck Masina, please stop using the passive voice. It moves the focus from the criminals onto their victims. It allows criminals to get away with all sorts of heinous atrocities unnoticed. Using the passive voice is the exact verbal equivalent of turning the camera away from the perpetrator of a crime and onto the victim while filming.

You said, "...girls are sent to special initiation camps. There, the girls sometimes are encouraged to have sex to transition into adulthood...

Who sends the girls to these camps? Who encourages them to have sex? Who equates adulthood with sexual activity?

The practice is rampant in Malawi’s southern district of Mangochi, said Chief Chowe, a senior traditional leader. He added that it exposes girls to high risk of HIV infection because they’re usually partnered with older men who sleep with several girls in the camp." Who partners these girls with older men? Chief Chowe?

As a senior chief traditional leader, Chief Chowe is largely to blame for this problem. He is aware of the risks, and therefore he should be fighting to stop this tradition. It sounds like a pedophile's paradise. This initiation practice does not appear to benefit the girls at all. What's in it for them?

Who practices these harmful "cultural" practices? Who are the "culprits" in this situation? The impregnators!

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